Pop: Mind your language; You've come a long way, baby: Sawhney's route to success was a complex one
Musician Nitin Sawhney grew up with racism and cross-cultural confusion. But he has come of age with an album that celebrates his diverse influences. It's beyond good, says Phil Johnson
Speaking in his dressing room at Ronnie Scott's in Birmingham on Monday night, just before going on stage with his band, Sawhney seems angry, amused and resigned in turn. "If a white band had won, no one would think twice about it," he says. "What Talvin does is very different from what I do; and Asian Dub Foundation, Cornershop, and all these Asian bands are completely different from each other. It's a sad reflection on how people still view British culture that it's even a question, and for me it's grimly ironic. In a society which is intrinsically diverse - where diversity is the norm, even - how can we justify marginalisation on the basis of culture?"
This question is raised almost to the status of a manifesto in Beyond Skin. There are songs about the testing of nuclear weapons in India, and their use by the government to bolster nationalism and corrupt the ideals of Hinduism; songs about the trials and tribulations of emigration and immigration; songs about the conflict between nation states; there are even songs about love. That the album doesn't come over like a tract is due largely to the sweetness of the music the ideas are wrapped in. Echoes of Soul II Soul, Massive Attack and Bjork ensure that you can whistle while you're being educated, and the mixture of traditional Indian elements with soul, rap, drum'n' bass, flamenco and bossa nova gives a different flavour to every track. Taken as a whole, it's an extraordinary achievement. But Nitin Sawhney, as any glance at his CV makes clear, is no ordinary guy.
At the age of 34, Beyond Skin is the fourth solo album he has released. In an earlier incarnation, he was also the co-creator (with Sanjeev Bhaskar) of the comedy double-act, the Secret Asians, which became the basis for the successful radio and TV series Goodness Gracious Me. As an actor, writer and composer, Sawhney has worked on a variety of film and theatre projects and was for a time the Musical Director of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In demand as a re-mixer, he recently worked on a project for Sir Paul McCartney, who came round to Sawhney's south London flat to talk about their collaboration and ended up playing "Yesterday" on the guitar. He also has a Law degree and a qualification in accountancy to fall back on, although it looks increasingly unlikely that these safety routes will be needed.
Yet despite - or more probably because of - his innumerable talents, Sawhney was the victim of racist bullying at his grammar school in Rochester, Kent, where he was the only Asian in his class. He grew up in a time and a place where the National Front weren't just on the news, they were on the local streets. "When I was doing comedy, it was a great buzz to be able to control people and regulate how they would laugh," he says. "As an Asian, it came as a great source of amazement to me to entertain people who at an earlier time might have called me a Paki, and I got a real kick out of it, if you'll forgive the pun."
Partly as a response to racism, and to the discomfort of having to adjust to two different cultures, Sawhney as a child withdrew into his studies in piano and classical guitar. "I became escapist, and music became an expression of that, something I lived with for eight hours a day from the age of five. In terms of school, my identity was suppressed. You had to fit into an English grammar school, then go home to an Asian context. The problem was reconciling both things."
Beyond Skin is Sawhney's most sustained effort of reconciliation so far. "It's my statement of identity," he says. "I discovered that I was a stranger in both England and India in terms of nationality, and that I had to therefore define my own parameters of identity, beyond everything." He's adamant that the content of the album - the freight of ideas - doesn't detract from its form. "I see music as a linguistic thing, something that is about the communication of ideas. For me, the writing of music and the message behind it are the same thing. It's not a preachy album; it's structured and thought through, but I think an album should hang together. Massive Attack's Protection showed that you can put diverse music on one album and make it work."
The diversity of Beyond Skin is one of its most compelling attributes, but what is even more impressive is the depth of the music, the layers of carefully crafted detail, revealed incrementally as you listen to each track again and again. This layering effect also played a part in the album's creation. "It's about delving into the deepest parts of yourself, stripping it back and trying to say it's OK to feel who you are and not be ashamed," says Sawhney. "I know it's the best I could have done, the rest is irrelevant." Can't they just give him the Mercury Prize now and be done with it?
`Beyond Skin' is on Outcaste Records. Nitin Sawhney plays at the Fiddler's, Bristol (0117-907 1702), Sat 18 Sept; the Eden Club, Edinburgh (0131-650 4213), Fri 24 Sept; and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen (01224 647999), Sat 25 Sept
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